Monday, May 31, 2010

Superman absent in “Boys of Steel” and “Smallville”

As has been noted elsewhere, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman does not include the word “Superman.” (I’m talking only about the story proper—the illustrated portion—because “Superman” does appear in the Author’s Note and, of course, the subtitle.)

We show Superman, and I do use “super” (once), but that’s as close as it comes. (No, this was not a legal moratorium. It was simply an experiment that occurred to me when I was nearly done writing the book and noticed I’d not yet used his name.)

One of my favorite moments during school visits is when I ask an audience that has read the book how many times the word appears in the text. For some reason, someone usually answers "18.” But someone always gets it right as well, which is impressive because I’m not always posing the question while the book is fresh in mind. And even if they’d just finished reading it, it’s not like they memorized it!

The reason I bring this up again is because I (being a dim bulb far too often) only recently realized that it correlates to the TV show Smallville, whose 10th and final season will start this fall. The mantra of the show has been “no flights, no tights.” It is reimagining the Superman mythos, showing Clark take on a heroic role long before he puts on a cape. It’s a nice if obvious message: it’s not the suit that makes the savior.

Fans have speculated that the first and only time the show will show Clark in costume will be the last scene of the last episode. That’s probably true (though in the 9th season finale, viewers do see the suit—twice. But both times in reflection: once in a future-dream sequence, reflected in the globe atop The Daily Planet, and the other time the actual costume, reflected in Clark’s eyes.)

So Boys of Steel shows but doesn’t tell Superman while Smallville tells but doesn’t (technically) show Superman. And that, perhaps, is the only convergence.

Except for this:

Allison Mack, who plays Chloe Sullivan on Smallville, in 2008

5/13/11 update: The series finale of Smallville does, as expected, show Clark Kent in the Superman suit (though either obscured or from a distance), and it does use the word "Superman" (referring not to Nietzsche but to Clark's supehero name)...once.

Friday, May 28, 2010

BEA, Brandeis, Bronx, Brooklyn

In the past 48 hours, I walked every aisle of BookExpo America (the publishing industry’s annual trade show) in Manhattan, sat on a panel of Brandeis University alum children’s authors at my alma mater’s event house in Manhattan, did a school visit in the Bronx, and another in Brooklyn.


I considered taking a photo of myself with every publishing friend I bumped into. I ended up taking only one of me—and not with a person:

(The guitar was signed by many people, including me for some reason, but still.)

Well, I actually took another photo of me. I couldn't resist when I found a piece of marketing whose cleverness came from where I found it:

(Yes, that's in the men's room.)

Every BookExpo attendee registers under a pre-existing category—Librarian, Literary Agent, Bookseller, and so on.

This year, the Author badge included a new and perplexing modification:

Not just "Author" but "Published Author."

In years past, “Author” was explanatory enough. I can’t imagine that confusion could’ve arisen from that.

But in future years, perhaps we’ll see even more specific subcategories: “Unpublished Author,” “Self-Published Author,” “Ghost Writer,” “Unpublished Genius,” “Bad Writer but Published Author,” “Published Once but Haven’t Sold Anything in Years.”


I had the honor of being a part of a panel with two distinguished alumni, Ellen Levine ’60 and Doreen Rappaport ’61.

Eleanor, Quiet No More; written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Gary Kelley

We did it low-maintenance; I doubled as the moderator. After each of us took 10 minutes to share our background and introduce our work, we took questions from the audience. I’m happy to report that close to 60 people RSVPed, and it seemed like at least that many actually showed up. That’s a good turnout for a book event on a lovely early summer eve. Thank you to all who came.


The following morning, I continued with the series of visits I’m making to PS 157 in the Bronx. I do this as a volunteer for the Authors Read Aloud program of Learning Leaders, an education organization. It’s my eighth year.

The program is wonderfully set up. They send a fleet of authors to underfunded schools across the cityeach author to the same class four times a school year. That way, the author and the students develop a rapport—a friendship of sorts. It further vests the kids in reading and it gives us authors a more intimate experience than the typical assembly presentation does.


Then I used my invaluable new iPhone app called Hop Stop to navigate by subway from the Bronx to a junior high school in Brooklyn. Nineteen miles. One and a half hours. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been strong in math, but this does not compute.

But when you arrive at an auditorium full of curious kids, the distance traveled to get there becomes moot.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Finger Tip #3: A batload of support

The fans have spoken.

Since the 1960s, informed comics readers have demanded justice (of the intellectual property variety) for Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of Batman. He died in 1974—too soon to witness this campaign to add his name to Batman evolve from a fragmented yet serious murmur to more of a battle cry, made even louder by the unifying power of the Internet.

This is not just fanboy fanaticism. I feel this is a culturally significant movement.

Since I’ve gone public with my Finger book in progress, I’ve had the fortune to hear from a steady stream of these good-hearted, articulate fans. Below is a selected collection of pro-Finger comments I’ve received. (I think I’ve come across only one “anti-Finger” sentiment online, and it wasn’t really anti-Finger so much as it was “Come on…give Kane a little credit.”)

Names withheld to protect the indignant—though none asked me to. In fact, most probably would be the first to sign a petition.

Finger deserves a book…long overdue.

[I]t’s great to see someone else spreading the Gospel of Finger (GOF).

You really have done your research and taken some risks to get to the story that needs to be told. I hope this blog carries on until I have a copy or two of your book in my grubby little mitts to pore over!

[E]agerly anticipating your Bill Finger project, hope it reaches fruition!

I…look forward to your book on Bill Finger, a truly great writer who never got the credit or money he deserved.

I’m very excited about the Finger book and hope it comes together for you.

I hope you get to have your book on Bill Finger published as well. Like you said, it’s a story that needs to be told. Just as Jerry and Joe’s story needed to be told. :-)

We are all very much looking forward to your book about the creator of Batman. Hayden loves telling everyone that Mr. Finger is the man who invented Batman and that he will be getting a book about it as soon as you are done writing it.
11/12/08 (from the mother of a young boy, both of whom I met at a book event)

[At the end of] Batman #259 (1974—the year of Finger’s death), Denny O’Neil wrote, “We dedicate this story to the memory of our friend Bill Finger.” The guys at DC knew who the real genius behind Batman was. And, hopefully, with your book, so will the public.

I’m so ready to see [Bill Finger go public], and eagerly waiting to see what you’ve got planned. You can count on me to be at the front of the line!

Like a lot of people, I’m looking forward to your book.

Many thanks for taking on Bill Finger. Looking forward to it!

[G]reat to hear a Finger book is in the works…much needed and deserved! Children will love to read about the main man behind the Bat.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The “JFK” in JFK Elementary stands for…

…“just fine kids.” Not officially, but that’s how it seemed to me when I visited the West Babylon, New York, school on 5/14/10.

The school went full-tilt in terms of author visit prep. They may have set a school visit record for most presold books by yours truly. Here's a partial view:

The kids not only read some of them in advance, but also created often-elaborate and always-touching works of art about them.

Based on
Little Lightning (a novel about gnomes who develop the ability to control lightning):

I love this panorama; those butterflies play a crucial role in the plot:

Another class went in a different direction after reading Little Lightning:

(Jillbell is one of the gnomes in the book.)

Inspired by Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman:

Based on The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire:

Inspired by Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day:

Inspired by Detective Notebook: Ghost Hunting Handbook:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Finger Tip #2: Fingers crossed yields Finger’s book

I just sold a book about Bill Finger, the officially uncredited co-creator and original writer of one of the most beloved—and almost certainly the most lucrative—comic book character in history: Batman.

Yet despite Finger’s massive literary (yes, literary) accomplishment, he has been the subject of a book precisely never. He’s barely been the subject of an article—and the handful of exceptions that I know of were in comics, not mainstream, media.

After Bill and artist Bob Kane created Batman in early 1939, they had to wait only a few months to see the character make his national debut.

The first known print appearance of Batman: 
a house ad in Action Comics #12 (cover-dated May 1939).

The first narrative appearance of Batman: Detective Comics #27, 
which was also cover-dated May 1939; by most accounts, that means 
it would’ve gone on sale the first week of April.

My odyssey to get a Batman story in print, however, has taken a bit longer.

I’ll start with the most recent event and then go back to the beginning to share some of the key moments in the journey. (Some I will be expanding on in future posts; others are not here but will be revealed in time.)

5/21/10 I signed the contract for my book on Bill Finger and his dominant role in the creation of Batman.

Activate time machine…

2/15/05 In my “story ideas” file, I noted that a Batman book focused on Finger rather than Kane would be provocative, plus a natural and presumably commercial follow-up to Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

1/28/06 On what happened to be the 10th anniversary of the death of Jerry Siegel, I began compiling Finger research.

6/23/06 I made my second major find: Bill’s second wife. She was a most pleasant surprise because she was not mentioned in any of my printed source material. Something she would later tell me would indirectly steer me to two other major finds: Bill’s only sibling and a crucial photo, the startling details of which will have to wait.

8/2/06 Although multiple comics experts told me with conviction that there were no more photos of Finger beyond the four (only two of which are more widely known) that had already been published, I found the first “new” photo of him, from a 1964 wedding. It would not be the last.

8/12/06 After speaking multiple times on the phone with early Batman artist, Finger friend, and all-around gentleman Jerry Robinson, I had the honor of meeting with him in person at his New York apartment. We found a priceless and poetic piece of Finger history (part of a larger, even more priceless collection which would fetch thousands if not more at auction).

12/17/06 Just after 1 a.m., I began writing the first draft. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would not be able to get back to it until April.

12/18/06 Third major find: I got a copy of the startling photo mentioned at 6/23/06.

2/17/07 Fourth major find: Instantly negating more than a couple dead ends, I found the gateway to a rich well of Finger information—his first wife’s family. As for how, that (like many other entries of this timeline) will eventually become a blog post of its own.

2/27/07 Fourth major find, part two: the heretofore unknown—and lone—Finger heir. She’d had nothing to do with the Finger legacy for the previous 15 years…other than naming her dog Bruce Wayne.

3/2/07 Fifth major find: Finger’s long-estranged sister, born 1918 or 1919—and still alive.

4/6/07 I resumed working on the first draft.

5/5/07 I finished what could reasonably be called a first draft.

7/24/07 My Boys of Steel editor turned down the manuscript. She felt it would be more engaging for an audience older than who they publish for. Still, she remained open to reconsidering it later.

10/14/08 I met with a group of filmmakers who’d contacted me because they were interested in basing a documentary on my quest to rebuild Finger.

2/2/09 I learned that a never-published and long-sought-after article about Finger, based on an original interview, had finally surfaced in a cluttered house in Vermont.

2/8/09 On what would’ve been Finger’s 95th birthday, I got a copy of that article…but a year later, I would figure out that it had not been as lost as it had first seemed

5/1/09 A major publisher expressed interest. I kept my Fingers crossed.

6/9/09 Another major publisher expressed interest. Fingers still crossed because of previous publisher. Now double-crossed.

2/17/10 After several promising exchanges, Charlesbridge made an offer…and my agent notified me just as I was pulling up to a comic shop.

3/26/10 I got the contract.

5/21/10 Negotiation was complete. I signed the contract. So after five years, the most thrilling discoveries of my career so far, some disappointments, but ultimately an intact and sprawling dream, there will finally be a book about man and Batman, with a little Nobleman sprinkled in.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The best time to speak at a conference

I've been to a good number of book conferences these past few years. I've observed the following about possible speaking time slots (with respect to the attendees): 

up to 9 a.m.—too early; caffeine hasn’t kicked in for some; people straggle in throughout 
11 a.m.—mind starts to wander to food 
12-1:30 p.m.—competing with lunch is like having a dance-off with Shakira 
2 p.m.—digestion lethargy; they’re not nodding in agreement—just nodding off 
3 p.m.—see 2 p.m. 
4 p.m.—feels like the end of the day even if it isn’t; a time when many slip out 
5 p.m.-7 p.m.—dinner

That means the most desirable slot is 10 a.m. Too late to be groggy, too early to be hungry or leaving.

1/1/22 addendum: Every January for 40+ years, the late, beloved MIT professor Patrick Winston delivered a talk called "How to Speak," in which he said the ideal time to speak was 11 a.m.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What’s the difference between these two “What’s the Difference?” books?, part 2 of 2

First read part 1.

They were the brand and I was the solo act. But I felt I had an advantage mental_floss didn’t…timing. You think would have survived had gone online first?

It turned out that mental_floss's book had the same name (no surprise)…but also the same size…and even the same color treatment on the cover (light blue and brown, though theirs also had a red View-Master):

However, again, these similarities were (appropriately enough) trivial. The proof is in the content. (And I knew going in that there’d be overlap; as mental_floss's magazine and previous book had already proved, it’s inevitable with this topic.)

Their book contained 9 comparisons that mine did and multiple others on my extensive list for future What's the Difference? projects. The overlaps:

  • preface/introduction/foreword (I think using this comparison as the preface was our mutually cleverest move)
  • geek/nerd/dork (I also included dweeb and dork)
  • alligator/crocodile (they used it as a sidebar to the main entry IZOD/Lacoste)
  • murder/manslaughter (I also included homicide)
  • state/commonwealth
  • frog/toad
  • meteor/meteorite/meteoroid (both of us addressed asteroid in a sidebar, and I also included comet)
  • mountain lion/cougar (I didn’t have this as a main comparison but rather part of the "Related Terms")
  • Holland/Netherlands

One I wished I’d had:

  • Hasidic Jew/Orthodox Jew

Comparisons aside from the entries:

  • Page count: 176 (mine) vs. 190.
  • Mine had blue and brown scheme inside but no illustration; theirs had no color inside but cartoons opening each section.
  • Mine was divided into 14 categories from "Animals" to "Hard Surfaces"; theirs, six categories named for school subjects ("English," "Social Studies," etc.).
  • Mine had an index and theirs didn’t.

I don’t know the latest on mental_floss’s book, but mine has had at least three printings and there are more on the way. I expect to have other What's the Difference? news, though I don’t know when.

And that is the difference between
"The End" and "The End?"

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What’s the difference between these two “What’s the Difference?” books?, part 1 of 2

In April 2004, I began to pitch publishers a book for adults and teens called What's the Difference? It was the result of years’ worth of collecting a specific type of factoid. The book would whimsically explain the differences between pairs (or groups) that we confuse or simply can’t articulate a distinction between, including alligator/crocodile, vanilla/French vanilla, and geek/nerd (plus dweeb and dork).

That same month, the humorous trivia junkie magazine mental_floss (which was on my radar but which I did not read regularly) put out
Condensed Knowledge, a book stuffed with eclectic, cleverly organized facts. It included a recurring callout feature called…"What’s the Difference?" Of its 14 comparisons, only one was already on the short list for my proposed table of contents: rap vs. hip-hop.

In early 2005, I sold my book to Barnes & Noble’s publishing division. That September, it came out in their stores and on their site (If only picture books could move that fast.)

Just before Thanksgiving of that year, I learned that the "What’s the Difference?" feature from mental_floss was based on a recurring magazine feature of the same name. I tracked down the first two issues that included it.

Four comparisons from these first two installments were in my book as well:

  • kung fu/karate (I also included judo)
  • hurricane/typhoon (I also included cyclone and tornado)
  • murder/manslaughter (I also included homicide)
  • mountain lion/cougar (I didn’t have this as a main comparison but rather part of the "Related Terms" of panther/leopard/jaguar)

Plus two more comparisons in the magazine were on my list of potentials for a sequel.

I contacted mental_floss to introduce myself. They already knew about my book, and in fact had been surprised to see it. I understood; it must have looked like I’d stolen the idea from the magazine or
Condensed Knowledge, though they didn’t accuse me of that. But it was almost immediately understood that delineating differences was just a good idea that we each had independently.

I suggested we work together in some way (not necessarily with regard to the differences concept). They kindly responded that we should indeed try…and also mentioned that they had a full book based on their "What’s the Difference?" feature coming out in July 2006.

Continued in part 2.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What can brown do you for you? Go green!

Just because you write a book doesn’t mean you know it.

At a recent school visit, a library media specialist pointed out something in
Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman that I had not noticed on my own despite looking at and speaking about the book regularly these past two years.

No, not a typo. (Those I do tend to notice.)

Writer Jerry Siegel is always shown wearing brown suits or slacks. His best friend and creative partner, artist Joe Shuster, is always in green. (Similarly, Jerry’s ties are always green and Joe’s always brown, with one exception, the reason for which I don’t know.)

What does this mean?

For starters, I’m not as observant as I should be. I don't know more.
Illustrator Ross MacDonald surely had a reason. Maybe simply to distinguish between two boys who looked alike.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Beginnings and, for the first time, endings

One of my first books for Scholastic was 5-Minute Daily Practice: Writing:

Yes, that title—and that cover—don’t scream “Must-have”!

(I'd named it something else and I remember not knowing they'd changed the title until I got my author copies.)

It’s a book of story prompts
—tools intended to motivate writers (especially ones who may struggle to come up with an idea).

For example:

Just as my dad was about to light a fire, something flew out of our chimney and into the family room...
That’s obviously a one-liner but some in the book go on for a few short paragraphs:
Is My Underwear Showing?

I’m not embarrassed if somebody sees my underwear. For example, I don’t mind when someone sees a pair in the laundry or on my floor. I’m only embarrassed if somebody sees my underwear on me.

One day, everyone saw my underwear on me.

We had an assembly in the cafeteria. A very funny rock band was singing about American history. In between the songs, they would call up volunteers to act out famous events.

I didn’t want to be called, which of course meant that I was. The band wanted my help in a skit about the Boston Tea Party, the night when patriots dressed as Native Americans and dumped cases of tea into Boston Harbor to protest British taxes. I was a patriot, and my job was to bend over, pick up a “crate” (there weren’t really crates on stage, but we pretended), throw it into the water, then repeat.

As I did this, I didn’t feel that my pants were a little too loose. After I threw my fifth or sixth crate, I turned to pick up another when suddenly there was a huge laugh from the audience because...
Whether the prompt is short or longer, it’s up to the student to complete the story.

My mom didn’t believe in coloring books. She wanted her kids to confront a blank page and create something from nothing. It’s a philosophy I have adopted with my kids, though, at times, I do allow them to color within the lines.

Story prompts are to writing as coloring books are to art. So I was hesitant to write this book. I didn’t want to compromise my inherited principle.

I decided I’d do it, but with a twist: some of the story prompts are not story openings but rather story
endings. Therefore, instead of continuing after the dot dot dot, the writer will write up until the dot dot dot.

For example:

...We decided to paint the tree house again—but this time, any other color besides red.

...After that, Jack said he was through accepting dares.
I’ve not heard of another book (before or since) that has done this. While it doesn’t compare with a blank page, it is a kind of exercise that kids presumably haven't seen, so I told myself that made it okay. Because of this quirky feature, I still mention the book in writing workshops today.

Both kinds of prompt require imagination. And both call upon skills in areas of reading comprehension, cause and effect, and inference.

But the story endings seem more like mysteries to be solved, don’t they?

With a beginning, you can go in most any direction. That’s great for fostering creativity. With an ending, you can, too, but you always have to end up with the ending. That’s great for what seems like deductive reasoning.

Maybe I’m over-analyzing (and if so, badly), but perhaps someone out there can better articulate how the mind works differently when writing into an ending as opposed to writing after a beginning.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Old message, New Milford

On 4/27/10, I spoke at Sarah Noble Intermediate School in New Milford, CT. My message was not "old" in the sense of outdated but rather in the sense that I've been sharing it since I began visiting schools.

The newspaper kindly covered my presentations there, including taking several photos. A correction: Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman got 22 rejections and 2 interested publishers (not 26 and 4).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Finger Tip #1: The next Batman

Earlier this year, I mentioned that soon I’d be starting something called Finger Tips.

Welcome to the first.

This week, there was news about the next Batman movie (third in a row involving writer-director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale):

I immediately rescheduled my haircut.

That same year, at least one and possibly two other Batman-related stories will be coming out. (Well, many Batman-related stories, but only two, as of now, that involve me.)

I am very close to being able to just come out with it rather than tease. That will probably be Finger Tip #2.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Write on the Hudson

On 5/1/10, I was one of 100 authors signing books at the 2nd annual Hudson Children’s Book Festival. (It was my first and hopefully first annual.)

I was thrilled to catch up with infrequently-seen friends (Mark Shulman, Kate Feiffer, Alan Katz, Katie Davis), meet some e-friends in person for the first time (Doreen Rappaport, Jennifer Berne, Richard Michelson), and make new friends.

One of them bears special mention. She’s a firecracker named Muriel Harris Weinstein.
When Louis Armstrong Taught Me to Scat (Chronicle) is her first picture book—and she is 86 years old.

Muriel further reeled me in by mentioning that her next book (which is, I believe, for adults) “breaks all the rules of biography.” This is a topic I champion whenever possible.

An event of the scope of this festival takes savvy planning—and the hard work showed. The gym was filled with Superman-colored tables stacked with books manned by double the number of authors as last year. According to the organizers, the attendance was also up (and possibly the humidity, too).

In the pre-doors-open quiet

An e-mail thread has been pinging around since then with all authors copied, and the reviews are unanimous—this event rocked.

On the scenic drive back, friend/neighbor/YA author Sarah Darer Littman and I stopped to photograph some of the quirky sights of the Hudson Valley. Though not the Batcave, my favorite was this:

Don’t balk at the price. It’s two stories.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Authors can’t authorize lav passes

From 4/28 to 4/30/10, I set up camp in Simsbury, Connecticut, one town over from Avon, the town in which in spent my first seven years. I spoke at five Simsbury schools—and drove by the house in which my story (and storytelling) began:

(My dad will want me to note that he maintained the grounds much better when we lived there in the 1970s. The current owner—yes, I rang the doorbell—will want me to note that they were recently out of the country for several years, during which time they rented the house and could not easily keep tabs on the upkeep.)

During the Q&A portion of my presentation at the first Simsbury school, a boy asked what would turn out to be my favorite question of the trip: "May I go to the bathroom?"

To be clear, there were plenty of on-topic questions I also loved, but for its beautiful balance of courtesy and innocence, this one cried out for a spotlight. I posted it on Facebook and a friend commented "At least he didn’t say 'Can I…'"

I deferred to a teacher, who, of course, gave the boy permission to excuse himself. I don’t have that kind of authority.

At another Simsbury school, a sixth grader came up to me afterward to reveal that he is brilliant. He didn’t say that. What he said was in response to this cartoon, which I show during my presentation:

This astute young man said the caption does not need "I threw that"; it could end with "spill"—if italicized. Does he understand "trust your audience" or what? The cartoon editor of The New Yorker should keep an eye on this one.

I show that cartoon, and others, as part of an exercise on analyzing both the art and the humor of cartoons like mine. Part of this segment refers back to a segment about writing in which I explain that the art of writing is not only about what we put in our work but what we leave out. And this boy was so down with that idea that he pointed out something that has not occurred to me in my six years of using this cartoon as an example.

At a third Simsbury school, the library media specialist had created a Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman blow-up to try to drum up excitement for my upcoming visit.

Interestingly, she used not the cover or an interior page featuring Superman but rather the endpapers, which no one else I’ve seen has done. I was thrilled because the design of the endpapers (for any book) rarely gets much attention, and I happen to love what Ross MacDonald did with them for our book: